Saturday, January 7, 2017
Thursday, December 15, 2016
“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”—George Bernard Shaw
At Calgary’s When Words Collide this past August, I moderated a panel on Eco-Fiction with publisher/writer Hayden Trenholm, and writers Michael J. Martineck, Sarah Kades, and Susan Forest. The panel was well attended; panelists and audience discussed and argued what eco-fiction was, its role in literature and storytelling generally, and even some of the risks of identifying a work as eco-fiction.
Someone in the audience brought up the notion that “awareness-guided perception” may suggest an increase of ecological awareness in literature when it is more that readers are just noticing what was always there. Authors agreed and pointed out that environmental fiction has been written for years and it is only now—partly with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—that the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor; for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated— in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering.
I would submit that if we are noticing it more, we are also writing it more. Artists are cultural leaders and reporters, after all. I shared my own experience in the science fiction classes I teach at UofT and George Brown College, in which I have noted a trend of increasing “eco-fiction” in the works in progress that students are bringing in to workshop in class. Students were not aware that they were writing eco-fiction, but they were indeed writing it.
I started branding my writing as eco-fiction a few years ago. Prior to that—even though my stories were strongly driven by an ecological premise and strong environmental setting—I described them as science fiction and many as technological thrillers. Environment’s role remained subtle and—at times—insidious. Climate change. Water shortage. Environmental disease. A city’s collapse. War. I’ve used these as backdrops to explore relationships, values (such as honour and loyalty), philosophies, moralities, ethics, and agencies of action. The stuff of storytelling.
Environment, and ecological characteristics were less “theme” than “character,” with which the protagonist and major characters related in important ways.
Just as Bong Joon-Ho’s 2014 science fiction movie Snowpiercer wasn’t so much about climate change as it was about exploring class struggle, the capitalist decadence of entitlement, disrespect and prejudice through the premise of climate catastrophe. Though, one could argue that these form a closed loop of cause and effect (and responsibility).
The self-contained closed ecosystem of the Snowpiercer train is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a stony militia. Those at the front of the train enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. Revolution brews from the back, lead by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), a man whose two intact arms suggest he hasn’t done his part to serve the community yet.
Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that:
“We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.
In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you…Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”
Ecotones are places where “lines are crossed,” where barriers are breached, where “words collide” and new opportunities arise. Sometimes from calamity. Sometimes from tragedy. Sometimes from serendipity.
When environment shapes a story as archetype—hero, victim, trickster, shadow or shape shifter—we get strong eco-fiction. Good eco-fiction, like any good story, explores the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. Good eco-fiction ventures into the ecotone of overlap, collision, exchange and ultimate change.
In my latest book Water Is… I define an ecotone as the transition zone between two overlapping systems. It is essentially where two communities exchange information and integrate. Ecotones typically support varied and rich communities, representing a boiling pot of two colliding worlds. An estuary—where fresh water meets salt water. The edge of a forest with a meadow. The shoreline of a lake or pond.
For me, this is a fitting metaphor for life, given that the big choices we must face usually involve a collision of ideas, beliefs, lifestyles or worldviews: these often prove to enrich our lives the most for having gone through them. Evolution (any significant change) doesn’t happen within a stable system; adaptation and growth occur only when stable systems come together, disturb the equilibrium, and create opportunity. Good social examples include a close friendship or a marriage in which the process of “I” and “you” becomes a dynamic “we” (the ecotone) through exchange and reciprocation. Another version of Bernard Shaw’s quote, above, by the Missouri Pacific Agriculture Development Bulletin reads: “You have an idea. I have an idea. We swap. Now, you have two ideas and so do I. Both are richer. What you gave you have. What you got I did not lose. This is cooperation.” This is ecotone.
I think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because ecosystems, ecology and environment are becoming more integral to story: as characters in their own right. I think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because we are ready to see it. Just as quantum physics emerged when it did and not sooner, an idea—a thought—crystalizes when we are ready for it.
Don’t stay a shoe … go find an ecotone. Then write about it.
Friday, October 7, 2016
|Miller in "The Expanse"|
The Expanse is a stylish and intelligent science fiction (SF) TV series set 200 years in the future when humanity has colonized the moon, Mars and the Asteroid Belt to mine minerals and water. Humanity has split three ways culturally, ethnically and even biologically: Earth is currently run by the United Nations; Mars is an independent state, devoted to terraforming with high technology; and the Belt contains a diverse mix of mining colonies, settlers, workers and entrepreneurs. Belters’ physiology differ from their Earth or Mars cousins, given their existence in low gravity.
One of the creators Mark Fergus explains the setting and premise of The Expanse: "We always felt that the great struggle of a lot of sci-fi we grew up on takes us into a story world where we’ve already jumped over the interesting part, which is the first fumbling steps of us pushing off this planet, getting out into the solar system, sorting ourselves out as a race. All the struggle and the pain and the glory of that, usually sci-fi kind of hops over it.” Fergus and his colleagues were attracted by what he called “the scaffolding,” how it all got built. “Here is who built it. Here is how humanity started looking at itself differently and getting rid of old forms of racism and creating new forms of racism.” This is the story of The Expanse.
The series, based on novels by James S.A Corey (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) follows three main characters: U.N. Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasaraia (Shohreh Aghdashloo) on Earth; police detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) a native of Ceres (in the Belt); and ship’s officer Jim Holden (Steven Strait) and his crew as each unravels a piece of a conspiracy that threatens peace in the solar system and the survival of humanity.
First, Miller’s boss, Shaddid (Lola Glaudini) tosses him a missing person case: find Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), daughter of a Luna-based shipping magnate (Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile); then Holden and four other crewmembers of the ice trawler Canterbury barely survive an attack that could spark a war between Earth and Mars. Miller and Holden eventually learn that the missing girl and the ice trawler's fate are connected to a larger threat.
The only person who may stand a chance of figuring out the big picture is Chrisjen Avasarala, a brilliant 23rd-century Machiavelli. She will stop at nothing in her search for the truth, including gravity torturing a Belter or playing her friends and contacts like chess pieces to find answers. What makes Chrisjen incredibly more interesting than, say a Circe or Claire Underwood, is that her scheming—as reprehensible as it may be at times—comes from a higher calling, not from lust for power or self-serving greed. She’s seeks the truth. And, like Miller, she struggles with a conscience. When her grandson asks if people are fighting again, Chrisjen says, “not yet; that’s why we [her contacts] need to talk and tell the truth; when people don’t tell the truth it always ends badly.” She may have been thinking of herself.
|Chrisjen interrogates a Belter|
Chrisjen is a complex and paradoxical character. Her passionate search for the truth together with unscrupulous methods, make her one of the most interesting characters in the growing intrigue of The Expanse. The Expanse further dignifies itself with subtle nuances of multi-layered social commentary—sewn into virtually every interaction.
|Chrisjen with Degraaf|
After Chrisjen’s friend Franklin Degraaf (Kenneth Welsh), Earth ambassador to Mars, suffers as a casualty in one of her intel games, he quietly shares: “You know what I love about Mars?... They still dream; we gave up. They are an entire culture dedicated to a common goal: working together as one to turn a lifeless rock into a garden. We had a garden and we paved it.” Chrisjen offers consolation to the loss of his position (because of her): “we may have prevented a war.”
The subtle details and rich set-pieces of The Expanse universe rival the best
world building of Ridley Scott. I was reminded of the grit and
immediacy of Bladerunner. The Expanse is SF without feeling like
it’s SF; it just feels real. Powerful
storytelling—from judicious use of slow motion, odd shot angles, haunting music
and background sounds, to superlative acting—draws you into a complete and
|Ceres Station in the Belt|
Annalee Newitz of ARS Technica wrote, “the little details of this universe are so finely rendered that they become stories unto themselves, like the way interracial tensions developed on Ceres between humans who grew up gravity-deprived and spindly, versus those whose gravity-rich childhoods allow them to pass as Earthers.” Newitz adds that no clumsy Star Trek-style representation of exo-planetary civilizations occurs in The Expanse. It’s all humans. “Instead, there are political factions whose members stretch across worlds. And planets (or planetoids) whose populations are fragmented by class, race, and ideology. The politics here are nuanced, and we are always being asked to rethink who is right and who is wrong, because there are no easy answers.”
Subtle but powerful differences between the Belter culture, Earthers and Martians (all human) includes language. Belters use a creole that’s a mix of several Earth languages that were spoken by the original human settlers in the Belt colonies. Resembling a Caribbean twang and cadense words contain a mix of slang English, Chinese, French, Zulu, Arabic, Dutch, Russian, German, Spanish, Polish and others. For instance, “Inyalowda” means inner or non-belter. “Sa-sa” means to know. “Copin” means friend. An Expanse Wikia provides an in-depth list of Belter Creole used in the TV show.
Liz Shannon Miller of Indiewire.com shares: “In the 23rd century, the smart
phones look fancier but their screens
still crack. There are people in straight relationships and gay relationships
and group marriages. There are still Mormons, who are preparing for a whole new
level of mission. The rich live well. The poor struggle. It’s not "Star
Trek" — there’s no grand glorious yet vague cause to which our heroes have
devoted themselves. Survival is what matters.”
|the UN building on Earth|
The Expanse is a sophisticated SF film noir thriller that elevates the space opera sub-genre with a meaningful metaphoric exploration of issues relevant in today’s world—issues of resource allocation, domination & power struggle, values, prejudice, and racism. I found the music by Clinton Shorter particularly appropriate: subtle, edgy, haunting, and deeply engaging. Like the story, characters and world.
|Miller and Havelock|
Amidst the unfolding intrigue of war, corruption and secrecy, a rich tapestry of characters take shape. Miller, who was born on Ceres but received some cheap bone density implants—so he looks like an Earther—is a cynical detective (not above being bribed by merchants cutting corners) and trying hard to hide the fact that he has a big heart and is looking for meaning in his empty existence as a Star Helix cop (Miller: “No laws on Ceres; just cops.”) Belters call him a “well wala”, traitor to his own kind.
Ceres-born Anderson Dawes (Jared Harris), leader of the separatist OPA (Outer Planet Alliance) challenges Miller: “I think that under that ridiculous hat there’s a Belter yearning to find his way home.” Except what is “home”? When asked by his new Star Helix partner, Dmitri Havelock (Jay Hernandez) about ‘why the hat?’, Miller quips, “to keep out the rain.” There is no rain on Ceres. Never was. Never will be.
The militant OPA is an activist organization that sells itself as a liberator for
Belters but is really a terrorist
revolutionary group, looking to shift the balance of power. Led by Dawes, the
OPA’s ambitious agenda ranges from staging protests in the gritty Medina
district of Ceres to stealing stealth technology and bio-weapons from Mars and
Earth. Some of the best scenes occur between the intense Dawes and crusty
Miller, as they banter over what it means to be a Belter in a solar system where
they are clearly not players but sandwiched in a power struggle between Earth
|Miller with Anderson Dawes|
|Jim Holden with Naomi Ngata|
Dawes confides to Miller: “All we’ve ever known is low G and an atmosphere we can’t breathe. Earthers,” he continues, “get to walk outside into the light, breathe pure air, look up at a blue sky and see something that gives them hope. And what do they do? They look past that light, past that blue sky. They see the stars and they think ‘mine’… Earthers have a home; it’s time Belters had one too.”
Subtle. Not so subtle. The show makes a few opportunities to point out what we are doing to our planet. Cherish what you have. Cherish your home and take care of it. We’re reminded time and again, that we aren’t doing a good job of that.
Onboard the MCRN Donnager, Martian Lopez asks his prisoner Holden if he
misses Earth and Holden grumbles, “If I did, I’d go
back.” Lopez then dreamily relates stories his uncle told him about the
“endless blue sky and free air everywhere. Open water all the way to the
horizon.” Then he turns a cynical eye back on Holden. “I could never understand
your people. Why, when the universe has bestowed so much upon you, you seem to
care so little for it.” Holden admits, “Wrecking things is what Earthers do
best…” Then he churlishly adds, “Martians too, by the look of your ship.” Lopez
retorts, “We are nothing like you. The only thing Earthers care about is
government handouts. Free food, free water. Free drugs to forget the aimless
lives you lead. You’re shortsighted. Selfish. It will destroy you. Earth is
over, Mr. Holden. My only hope is that we can bring Mars to life before you
destroy that too.” The underlying message in
Expanse becomes clear in the last show of Season One. Near the end, Miller asks
Holden what rain tastes like and Holden admits he never thought about it.
Miller then asks, “How could you leave a place like Earth?...” Holden responds,
“Everything I loved was dying.”
Critic Maureen Ryan of Variety says, “It’s to the show’s credit that it is openly political, and takes on issues of class, representation and exploitation.”
Season Two of The Expanse is scheduled to air in 2017. Variety’s Whitney Friedlander writes that The Expanse is Syfy’s most expensive series to date. It shows. And it shows well. The Expanse is a welcome breath of fresh air for high quality “space opera” science fiction on TV. It fills a gaping hole left by the conclusion of Battlestar Galactica in 2009.